The town of Melk lies at the confluence of three rivers; the Danube, the Melk, and the Pielach, and the magnificent complex that is Melk Abbey seems to look down protectively on the city below.
To reach the Abbey, we had to board a motor coach that would take us up a long and winding road to a parking lot from which we would have to quick-step our way to the main entrance. We were told we’d have to move quickly as we had a very specific and inflexible time for our tour given the large number of visitors that make their way through the Abbey.
Getting to the bus from the ship proved to be our first challenge, as a sudden change in weather had unleashed strong winds and lashing rains, something we were quite unprepared for. Staff on the Lif handed us umbrellas as we disembarked, and Mary was one of the few who had a weatherproof jacket to wear having purchased a Viking souvenir, a day earlier.
Happily, by the time we exited the bus at the top of the hill, the rain had all but exhausted itself, and the winds had been reduced to breeze-level.
The Abbey, considered one of Europe’s great sights, was established in 1089, and Benedictine Monks have lived and worked in the abbey uninterrupted since that time. Over its long history, the Abbey has survived fire, invasion, religious reform, and most recently two World Wars. While a few parts of the original structure remain, what visitors see today is 18th-century Baroque.
The latest restoration project, that took ten years starting in 1986, was financed in part by the sale of the abbey’s Gutenberg Bible to Harvard (which was later donated to Yale University). Renovations were completed by 1996 in time to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the first reference to a country named Österreich (Austria). Today, the institution survives, funded by agriculture and visits like ours.
With the clock ticking toward the start time of tour, we all scurried to the meeting point inside the main gate which leads to the Gatekeeper’s Courtyard.
Above the rounded archway in the picture above, there is a small balcony from which the abbot used to greet guests. I took a close-up photo of that area (see the picture below), and directly beneath the balcony, you can see the coat of arms of Abbott Berthold Dietmayr who was elected in the year 1700 and oversaw the abbey for nearly 40 years. On the small pedestals to the right and left of the balcony are sculptures of the apostles Peter and Paul, patron saints of the abbey church.
If you look at the map below, the dotted blue line leads from the parking lot through the Gatekeeper’s courtyard I’ve just described, and we were now going to enter into the Prelate’s courtyard. I’ve marked that location with a green X, and you can see the Prelate’s courtyard in the picture directly below the map.
From here, we entered the abbey through the doorway in the left hand corner of the courtyard and we were escorted into the Imperial Wing.
By the way, as a lover of numbers and statistics, I wrote down some of the following facts about Melk Abbey. There are currently just under 1000 pupils enrolled in the abbey school and the abbey has 497 rooms, 34 of them classrooms. One more number for you – there are 1365 windows in the abbey so I’m thinking that keeping them clean is either an onerous task assigned to the students, or someone in town has a somewhat lucrative window-washing contract!
Back to the tour.
Our guide gathered us together on the Imperial staircase (pictured below) and told us in great detail the story behind each of the statues on the landing ( a river god, a god of fame, and a god of wisdom…don’t ask me which one is which), and the motto in the middle translates to “with perseverance and courage” – apparently the rallying cry of Emperor Karl VI (in the early 18th century).
On the second floor, the staircase opens into the Imperial Corridor which extends nearly 650 feet, almost the entire length of the building. We were not allowed to take photographs beyond this point (I’m convinced it was so they could sell overpriced postcards in the gift shop), but I did manage to sneak the picture below.
On the walls are portraits and depictions of Austria’s rulers right up to the last emperor , Karl I. Incidentally, those little doors along the wall were access points for the monks to stoke the fireplaces in the rooms beyond without entering or disturbing the activities within.
It was in those rooms beyond, where a museum has been set up, and that was the main focus of our tour from this point forward. The handout I grabbed said; “the purpose of this museum is to inform visitors not only about the history and present life of the monastery, but also about the cultural, political, and economic functions which the monastery once served, continues to serve, or has newly taken on”. Phew, that is one heck of a long statement of purpose.
It is impossible and impractical for me to describe all that we saw in the rooms dedicated to this historical tour. Suffice to say, that some of the abbey’s most famous works of art and historical documents were on display.
I did poke around online while writing this blog and it seems that a private tour group in 2015 had been allowed to take some pictures of a few of the inner museum rooms. I’ve included some of them below just to provide a sense of what they looked like without going into any great detail. I’ll take you through the rooms in the same order we saw them on the tour, and here are the first three.
The picture below is from a postcard (yup, I broke down and spent the money), and it is the focal point of Room #4 – the Wood of Life. The picture is of a Romanesque crucifix, originally located in the oldest church in Vienna, and given to Melk Abbey as a gift in 1799.
Back to the 2015 tour group pictures and the one below shows Room 5 which was called “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in the mirror”. Many of the sacred (and very shiny) objects in this room are still used during the celebration of a ceremonial mass at the Abbey.
Room 6 was called “Heaven On Earth”, and among the many important objects in this room was the Melk Cross, and I’m back using postcards for this one. Pictured below is the front (left), and back (right) of the Cross. The first abbot of Melk Abbey is said to have a brought a piece of the Cross of Christ to Melk between 1018 and 1055. A new setting (seen in the pictures below) was made for it in 1362. There is a very elaborate description on the back of the postcards of all the elements of this invaluable holy relic, but I’ll simply state that this is considered the single most important historical piece/religious symbol within the abbey.
I considered Room 7 to be a bit on the creepy side. Themed as “in the Name of Reason”, this room featured exhibits from the Josephism period (1780-1790), when rationalism was the most important thing. Emotional and human values were ignored and all but cast aside leading to the invention of items such as the reuseable coffin. Can you say ewwww!
Room 8 was called “the Whole Person”, and it featured 11 nearly complete images of a human body attached to the walls. The guide explained that the 12th step, which is man in his entirety, is the visitor himself. I sorta kinda grasped the concept but this room left me with a bit of furrowed brow.
Moving on to Room 9 which was called “The Path to the Future”, and this room features a series of altar panels that illustrate the Benedictine’s vision of the path of faith, and where God appears in everyday life.
Just two more rooms to go, I promise.
Room 10 was labelled” To Glorify God in Everything”, and much of its focus was on the economy of the Abbey, especially historical sources of income. I didn’t make many notes here as I must confess I was starting to feel a bit numb from all the art-related commentary that our guide shared with us. She was super-knowledgable but spent a bit too much detailing the nuances of virtually every artifact in every room. I was however fascinated by what she described as a “complicated treasure chest”.
In order to protect the most valuable relics and historical documents of the church, this chest (which apparently required four strong men to lift) was built as a means of safe and virtually impenetrable storage. All the parts of the mechanism on the underside of the box had to move together in order for it to unlock. I wonder how I can get one for my stamp collection?
The last of the 11 rooms was entitled “Movement is a Sign of Life”, and it’s main visual focus was a model of the Abbey. It was pretty cool, but I found myself wondering what it would take to recreate it using Lego pieces. Focus David. Focus
That marked the end of the museum tour, but we still had two more important parts of the castle to see, starting with the Marble Hall (the postcard picture below).
This was a gorgeous room that served as the dining room for the Imperial family and other distinguished guests, as well as a festival hall. Its most memorable feature are the ceiling frescoes that have an optical illusion framing them. The painting gives you the impression that the ceiling rises up and curves higher than it really does, but it is, in fact, flat.
In order to access the last significant room on the tour, we had to exit the building and make our way across a balcony connecting the Marble Hall to the Library. From the terrace we had a wonderful view of the Danube, the Wachau Valley that we had traveled through in the morning, and the town of Melk below.
According to our guide, the Library that we were about to enter was second only to the church in order of importance of rooms in the abbey, and we learned about its contents, we understood why.
The volume of material here is staggering. There are more than 1800 manuscripts, some dating back to the early 9th century. There are 24,000 prints with 750 dating back to the year 1500 and earlier, and, there are well in excess of 100,000 books. There are bibles, 6 bookcases full of theological texts, two filled with geography and astronomy, and then there are encyclopedias galore. I saw books in French, German, Italian, Latin, and even a few in English.
I was fascinated by the globes and the world that was represented on them given that they date back to 1690. The upper floor can be reached by a spiral staircase, and you can see the entrance to one of two reading rooms at either of the Library.
The ceiling fresco in the Library is a counterpoint to the painting in the Marble Hall and once again the room was made to seem higher/bigger than it really is.
Our exit from this room brought us to the end of the organized part of our tour. Unfortunately, we only had about 45 minutes left to get back to our ship (a 30 minute mostly downhill walk), so we had no time to explore the remaining parts of the abbey due to the well-informed but lengthy commentaries of our guide.
We did have just enough time for me to pop into the gift shop to pick up a couple of the postcards I’ve used in illustrating this blog, and, we paused to take a picture of Mary standing beside one of those fireplace access doors I mentioned earlier.
Mary stands 5’2″ so you can estimate that those doors are only 3 to 3 1/2 feet high at the most. Not much room to be maneuvering about.
We had the option of taking the coach back to the ship or walking, and since we love to walk, we started back on foot through the town of Melk. We both remarked it was a shame we did not have more time to explore, as it was a lovely place with numerous shops that just begged to be visited and browsed. You can also see from the pictures below, that the inclement weather had blown through and we were left with mostly clear skies and a warm sunny afternoon.
I’m not sure who estimated a 30-minute walk back to the ship, but I can tell you that Mary and I just made it back with a couple of minutes to spare, and we are fast walkers. Just ask friends and family who try to keep up with us when we are out and about with them.
Happily, we did make it back without becoming “that couple”, you know the one that everyone sighs and stares at for keeping the rest of the tour waiting. Then, right on cue, at 3:45 PM, and not more than 5 minutes after we set foot on board, the ship’s crew were pulling up the gangplank and we were on our way again.